Nickel is a key element of electric vehicles — but mining it takes an environmental toll
Making the most of already mined elements can help meet future demand while reducing carbon emissions
Greg Dipple wants to turn the waste from nickel mines into large-scale carbon sinks.
The idea, which he has developed over two decades, would help reduce the environmental impact of mining for metals that are highly sought after for electric vehicle batteries.
"We can see a pathway towards nickel mining in the future where it produces a net positive environmental benefit from the context of greenhouse gases," said Dipple, a professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Carbin Minerals, an environmental services company.
Dipple's approach would use the tailings — pulverized rock byproduct that comes from extracting metals and minerals from ore — as a giant sponge for carbon in the atmosphere.
Once absorbed, the carbon would become rock and remain in the earth over time in a process known as carbon mineralization. Dipple and his colleagues have already scaled projects to the size of a football field, and have contracted with Canadian ecommerce company Shopify to sequester carbon.
But Dipple said projects like his should be the "last thing" mining companies do. Instead, he said, they should be opting to green their operations more holistically.
"That starts with renewable electricity. It includes decarbonizing the haul fleet. You look at all your operations, you make it as low carbon as you can and then the hard to abate … you take care of with your tailings," he said.
Rising battery demand
As the world moves toward renewable sources of energy, the production of batteries used for storing electricity is growing, especially for electric vehicles. Demand for nickel used in EVs is projected to grow up to 40-fold by 2040, according to figures from the International Energy Agency.
Because of the energy-intensive processes required to extract the metals and minerals used in batteries, battery production has its own environmental footprint.
Air pollution, water contamination and the destruction of habitats are all potential side effects of mining nickel, a key metal for current battery technology. Canada is the world's sixth largest supplier of nickel.
"It's really a situation where having good environmental regulations and controls in place on the mining industry is going to make a big difference," said Maddie Stone, a journalist who covers climate change. "They can be quite dirty without the right environmental safeguards in place."
The issues are particularly pronounced outside of Canada, said Stone. Nickel mining in Russia, which produces some of the "worst" air pollution in the world, according to Stone, supplies Western automakers in Europe. Indonesia and the Philippines are also major global suppliers of the commodity.
But mining experts say Canada has stricter regulations on the industry that, coupled with the country's climate commitments, mean mining companies here are taking a more environmentally friendly approach.
Making the most of already mined elements
Dipple's strategy is just one example of how mine operators are reducing their environmental footprint
"There's a lot of discussion about the social license to operate that mines have … to make sure that they are benefiting the communities in which they operate and that they're constantly greening their operations," said Sasha Wilson, an associate professor and the Canada Research Chair in biogeochemistry of sustainable mineral resources at the University of Alberta.
"This has been a really major shift in the last half century or so, and it's continuing to progress in that direction."
Current changes include shifting mine operations to greener energy, such as wind and solar, and reducing reliance on fuel-powered transportation.
Experts say in order to meet global demand for minerals and metals, and improve efficiency, operators need to extract more from what has already been mined.
The byproduct of mined ores can contain additional rare earth elements such as selenium, tellurium and indium that are used in modern technologies.
"We focus on the metals that are most economically attractive," said Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist and assistant professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Changing inefficient processes, Jowitt said, will require a shift in thinking about how mining is done. Currently, many mined products are exported to smelting facilities that can't process certain byproducts — or may not want to.
Given the amount of rare earth elements is finite, producers need to make the most of what's available, he said. Otherwise, Jowitt warns the supply chain could struggle to meet demand in the coming decades.
"Mining waste from 50 or 60 years ago is now becoming viable targets of some of these metals, so why not just do it properly the first time around?" said Jowitt.
Mining critical to energy transition, experts say
Nickel mining remains a necessary step toward the transition to green energy — and to power the modern conveniences societies have come to rely on, said Jowitt.
"If you look at some of the predictions that the World Bank, the International Energy Agency have put out there, then there's no way we can even move towards carbon neutrality without mining a heck of a lot of stuff."
Angela Asuncion, a researcher at University of Guelph who studies the impact of mining on the global south, said stronger safeguards against ecological and social harms are needed.
"Mining is critical to the just transition towards carbon neutral economies, but we can't be complicit to the exploitative ways that natural resources are being extracted within vulnerable nations," said Asuncion.
Asuncion said improving recycling processes for nickel, and other elements, will be essential to reducing the negative impacts associated with mining.
While it's likely that most nickel can be recycled, the existing stock won't be enough to meet projected demand, and more still will need to be mined, said Jowitt and Dipple.
That's why advocates like Asuncion say it's time to reimagine what a lower-carbon future will look like. That could mean less reliance on personal vehicles and increases to public transportation and bike lanes in major cities. It also means a "focus on degrowth," Asuncion said.
"This includes transitioning away from new mining towards reducing consumption of metals and minerals."
For Dipple, the need to green mining operations is an existential issue — one that isn't limited by technology, but by political and social will.
"This is a chance for the mining industry to fix its problems," he said.
"If they don't, we're not going to transform our economy."
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Maddie Stone produced by Yamri Taddese.